Mark Grabowski: Public loses no matter who wins iPhone privacy battle
Privacy advocates and media pundits lauded Apple, with Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Will Bunch calling its CEO, Tim Cook, a “patriot.” Meanwhile, GOP presidential frontrunner Donald Trump, appearing on Fox News, dismissed privacy concerns as “ridiculous hysteria” and slammed Apple, saying, “Who do they think they are?”
Unfortunately, there’s no good side to root for. The public stands to lose, no matter who wins the iPhone privacy battle – unless we change the rules they play by.
Citing the All Writs Act of 1789, a federal judge ordered Apple to help the Federal Bureau of Investigation access information an iPhone used by the gunman in the mass shootings. In order to comply, Apple says it would need to create a backdoor into its popular smart phone’s operating system.
The government, in turn, could use this new technology as a “master key” to invade the privacy of “tens of millions of American citizens” by intercepting their messages, accessing their health records or financial data, tracking their location, or even accessing their phone’s microphone or camera without their knowledge, the California-based company’s CEO warns.
Cook wrote in an open letter that “the U.S. government has asked us for something … we consider too dangerous to create … We are challenging the FBI’s demands with the deepest respect for American democracy and a love of our country.” The Obama Administration responded that the device was an “important national priority” and would only be able to be used on one phone. Sanctimony abound.
Apple sure doesn’t seem to love America or respect its democratic principles. It’s a corporation with a history of allegedly evading taxes, shipping American jobs overseas, engaging in unsafe labor practices, using child labor and violating human rights – all while making record profits. At one point, it reportedly had three times as much cash on hand as did the U.S. government. Now Apple is defying a court order in a country renowned for its rule of law.
Apple doesn’t seem concerned about consumers’ privacy, either. It sought to patent a technology that would allow outsiders to remotely control cameras in an iPhone. It reportedly worked with the National Security Agency to help it mine users’ data. Apple also faces federal class-action lawsuits for allegedly transmitting iPhone and iPad users’ personal information to advertisers. These are just a few examples of its many intrusions.
But, while Apple’s stated motives in this case may be disingenuous, it does have a point: The government’s demand poses an incredible threat to online security and privacy. It’s the latest attempt by our national-security state to undermine Americans’ constitutional rights in some desperate attempt to combat terrorism. Given their track record, there’s little doubt federal authorities would use the new technology to conduct gratuitous surveillance on innocent citizens.
Americans face a predicament: Do they support a government pushing for surveillance reminiscent of the dystopian society fictionalized in Orwell’s chilling classic Nineteen Eighty-Four? Or do they rally behind a greedy, opportunistic corporation that seems to think it’s above the law?
There is a third way.
Americans need to demand more from the establishment – namely, the world’s most profitable company and their own government.
Apple may have great products, but the means they use to make them don’t justify the end. Consumers have too long been apathetic about this. A 2013 study by Cone Communications found, “Nine-in-10 global citizens say they would boycott if they learned of irresponsible behavior.” Yet, somehow 72 percent of adults view Apple favorably and only 15 percent unfavorably, according to a 2013 Washington Post-ABC News poll.
Ordinary consumers can hold Apple accountable through a global boycott similar to the one against Nike in the 1990s that forced the best-selling brand to change its corporate ethics.
“They can buy competitive products (Samsung Galaxy) … they can sign petitions, they can send emails (to Apple), or they can protest at stores (like in Hong Kong),” corporate social responsibility expert Richard Brubaker said in a 2012 interview with Asia Society. He added, “That being said, for there to be a direct change in Apple, by Apple, there would need to be a real collective effort.”
Americans also need to assert their privacy rights. According to a 2015 Pew Research Center poll, most Americans don’t seem to be all that concerned about government surveillance. Only 17 percent reported that they were “very concerned,” while 35 percent were somewhat concerned, 33 percent were not very concerned and 13 percent were not at all concerned.
As Ben Franklin famously said, “Those who sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither.” Voters must call on their lawmakers to pass legislation on this issue rather than leaving the FBI to invoke a law that predates the FBI’s, much less the iPhone’s, existence.
It’s time to update our laws and upgrade our consumer ethics.
Mark Grabowski is an associate professor at Adelphi University, where he teaches internet law.